Waiting tables, and getting sexually harassed

When it comes to working for tips, one add-on isn't quite so welcome: widespread sexual harassment.

Tipped restaurant workers are suffering from endemic sexual harassment in their workplaces, thanks to their minimum wage of $2.13 per hour that has remained unchanged since 1991. That's according to a new study from Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, a group that advocates for the rights of restaurant workers. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Because tipped workers like waitresses depend on customers to make sure they earn enough to make ends meet, many feel they must put up with unwanted behavior, the study found. Given that tipped restaurant workers are predominantly women, representing two-thirds of country's waitstaff, the issue raises the question of how the economic uncertainty of tips may lead to gender-based sexual harassment.

"Since women restaurant workers living off tips are forced to rely on customers for their income rather than their employer, these workers must often tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers, co-workers, and management," the report noted. "This dynamic contributes to the restaurant industry's status as the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the U.S."

About 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stem from the restaurant industry, while only 7 percent of American women work in restaurants, according to the report. The EEOC figure stems from a 2011 review of data by MSNBC, which analyzed charges filed with the EEOC from January through November of that year, the report notes.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA), which represents the restaurant industry, disputed the report and said it "takes charges of sexual harassment very seriously."

"The assertion from ROC that the tipped wage somehow increases sexual harassment by customers is another effort to confuse the reality of the tipped wage in the industry," Katie Laning Niebaum, vice president of communications and media relations for the NRA, said in a statement sent to CBS MoneyWatch.

She added, "We take pride in the fact that more women own, operate and manage restaurants than virtually any other industry."

The NRA added that "no individual is making $2.13 an hour."

While that might be the case, waiters and waitresses depend either on tips to meet or exceed the minimum wage, or their bosses. Employers must make up the difference if the baseline $2.13 hourly wage and tips don't meet the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The median hourly wage for waiters and waitresses is $8.94, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the NRA says "entry-level servers" make $16 per hour.

But that system enables the type of harassment that tipped workers endure, the report argues.

Women aren't the only ones who are victimized. While 80 percent of women experienced sexual harassment from customers, 55 percent of male waitstaff also said customers had sexually harassed them. Harassment stems not only from customers, but from management and co-workers, the study found.

The study is based in part on surveys from 688 participants, with about two-thirds currently working in the restaurant industry. One-third had recently worked in restaurants. The data was collected via online surveys and in-person interviews, the report notes.

In states where the tipped wage has been abolished, such as California, workers were less likely to experience sexual harassment, the report noted.

The solution? The industry should change to "one fair wage" so that tipped workers "no longer depend on other people's whims for their livelihood," the report argued. The tipped wage, it added, reinforces "a financial power dynamic that renders workers vulnerable."